So you’re planning your holiday. You’ve dreamed of taking this time away – the perfect location, the perfect hotel, exotic food, exciting adventures.
There’s only one thing holding you back.
Maybe you’ve had it all your life, or maybe you’re still getting used to it after only a few weeks or months. You’ve seen all your friends plan their vacations a hundred times, and while they all moan a bit about the inconveniences and the little details, it’s all gone fairly smoothly, right? But for you, it seems that there are always too many things to consider, too many questions to ask… and where on earth do you start?
I was a care-worker/PA for 2 years. I worked with young professionals and students who needed physical assistance, but who loved to lead active and adventurous lives. My clients had fun planning holidays, and I had fun planning those holidays with them. I learned a lot about which questions to ask, who to call, and what to check up on. My clients all had very different needs, and we shared the responsibility of ensuring those needs were met.
If you haven’t had much experience planning a trip under your current circumstances, I’m here to offer some tips and advice, as far as I can. My first piece of advice to you is…
FIND A TRAVEL BUDDY
Maybe you have a hired caregiver, maybe a personal assistant – perhaps you have a friend or relative who would be excited to share this experience with you. Make sure that the person you travel with is willing to do their part.
Travel entails some risks. The person accompanying you has to know exactly what they’re doing, and be willing to share the load with you – why should you have to do all of this yourself? It’s fun to assign tasks and plan things with someone else.
Your Travel Buddy should be responsible, capable, informed of your special requirements, but most importantly… they should be someone you can have fun with. I cannot say this enough. Travel is stressful, even when you don’t have a lot of extra things to consider, and you should choose a companion who can talk and laugh with you – a person that says “yes” to adventure.
If your Travel Buddy is with you under some kind of contract, make absolutely sure that they are on board with anything the trip may entail. You don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the Caribbean or Europe with a plan that your Buddy won’t agree to.
Most airlines are extremely helpful, nowadays, when it comes to special assistance. You have to go with an airline that has comprehensive policies dealing with this. Check the website for information, but I would recommend calling where possible – find out if your wheelchair needs to go into the hold, if it can go with you to the gate or if you need to transfer to another wheelchair at any point. Find out at what point you will able to get the wheelchair back. Ask what special assistance they provide, where Disabled WCs are located at the terminal, and if you need to check in at any special time.
It’s also a good idea to find out which seat you can be assigned. Depending on your requirements, use of the onboard lavatory might be an issue. Make sure you’re prepared for this and know all your options.
This will be a recurring piece of advice from me, but always tell them everything you can about what you need. Don’t ever assume that the person you are talking to understands your requirements. They can only work with the information you give them, so be as explicit as possible. If you need your Travel Buddy to help you with bookings and phone calls, make sure you get them on board as soon as you can.
Once you’ve landed, you’ll need to get to your hotel. To do that, you’ll need to book appropriate transportation.
The ease of this will depend entirely on your destination. I’ve experienced extremes as far apart as Orlando and Jamaica. Orlando is entirely wheelchair-friendly, to the point where even with an electronic wheelchair, we were able to use the same bus as all the other guests. Jamaica was a lot more tricky. A wheelchair-friendly bus had to be specially booked, and it had to be one bus per wheelchair.
The questions you need to ask here are: What are my specifications for this transportation? Will I need a bus or a car? How many wheelchairs need to be provided for? What kind of wheelchairs does the transportation accommodate? How informed are the local people/potential drivers about my particular needs? Finally, is the transport available for the entire vacation, or just for the airport transfer?
You may be able to book a hired car specific to your needs. Make sure your Travel Buddy has up-to-date documentation and is confident with driving. If you have this option, I would recommend it.
As far as possible, you want your hotel to be as easy to navigate as your own home. Telephone confirmations are essential during this process. Don’t take the words “wheelchair accessible” as any kind of guarantee. Involve your Travel Buddy in this process as much as possible. Make a list together of all the conveniences you will need. How much will you need the hotel to provide, and how much will you provide yourself?
Obviously, ramps and lifts are a factor – whether you’re accessing the hotel itself, your room, the dining hall, or a pool, you’ll want to know if they can accommodate you and your wheelchair. Check if there are ANY steps involved, and check the competency of the staff. Ask questions as specific as you need them to be. My previous clients often had to change their plans because while manual wheelchairs could be accommodated, Electric wheelchairs would often present difficulties.
Your room is something you will have to double, and triple check. Even the most progressive cities have staff who misunderstand. Make sure you cover all your bases. What kind of shower will you need? Will you need a special shower chair? Is it possible you may have to hire a shower chair from an external provider? Is the toilet seat high/low enough for your needs? I had a client who had to bring her own, easily attachable lavatory seat wherever we went. It was carried discreetly and saved us a lot of bother.
This is probably the trickiest bit, depending on where you are going. A resort holiday, where your biggest excursions outside of the hotel are shopping or rides/parks, particularly in modern cities, is fairly easy to plan. There are staff on hand to assist, and most malls and parks have easy wheelchair access, regardless of your particular needs. Even water parks can be organized with minimal difficulty, though you may have to look into hiring a specialized wheelchair for the day, in order to enjoy everything at its fullest.
Even experiences such as scuba diving, sky-diving and safaris can be enjoyed with the right transport bookings and experienced staff.
However, older cities, such as the ones you might find in Europe, as well as sights that are a little more out-of-the-way, are where you may hit obstacles (quite literally).
Older cities have a lot more steps and cobblestones. I would advise you to use a manual wheelchair under these conditions. Check what routes require stairs, and see if there are alternate ways to get to your chosen locations. In these cases, hiring the right transportation may be essential. There are not many of these places that cars can’t reach. Perhaps think about carrying a little portable ramp with you in your vehicle, just in case you are confronted with a step or 2.
Now for the countryside. Again, vehicles are important to consider. Make sure yours can take you where you need to be. Call ahead to your destinations and check their accessibility. Double check. Have a discussion with your Travel Buddy about boundaries. For instance, are they willing to carry you, with the aid of someone else? Are the staff at the destination willing to assist with this? Know your limits, and try to be prepared for every situation. Don’t let yourself be turned away from a once-in-a-lifetime experience because you didn’t know what you were getting into.
There are so many things to consider when you require special assistance, and it’s never fair. It will inevitably cost you more, and require more careful planning, especially the details that most people take for granted. But I tell you this – you are entitled to enjoy everything as fully as anyone else. You deserve to get away from life as it is. You deserve adventure, and only you know what will make you happy.
I can’t tell you what you need, only that other people will not assume what you need on your behalf. Don’t be daunted by the task ahead. Get excited, get a Buddy, and get out there. Enjoy your adventure.